By the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit St. Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ conception and birth: Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. You will notice that he did not say: “Once upon a time in a land far, far away.”
The story of our Lord’s conception and birth—with all the miracles surrounding it—is not a fairy tale or myth. It is an objective fact of history—grounded in a particular time and place—as real as the Norman conquest of Britain and the Protestant Reformation and the D- Day invasion.
The Gospel writers knew that the story of our Lord’s birth was miraculous—they knew that it contained details that were far from ordinary—they knew that it would take faith to believe what they said about our Lord’s birth--but they never downplayed those elements or tried to explain them away.
They simply recorded them. And the church has confessed them for two thousand years: I believe in Jesus Christ, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Such is the teaching of the Bible and such is the confession of the church and such is the personal faith of every true Christian.
Now, we all know that unbelieving world rejects this story out of hand and it has always been that way. During our Lord’s earthly ministry the Jews called into question his miraculous birth and the ancient and medieval rabbis who followed them said that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier.
So it continues today—even in the church-- as faithless leaders try to make room for modern skepticism by removing the miraculous from Christianity. But what is left of Christianity when the miraculous is gone? Just another man-made religion that finally has no power to change our lives for time and eternity.
That was not the faith of the apostles. That was not the faith of the reformers. That is not the faith of believing Christians today. We believe what the Holy Spirit inspired and what the writers of the Gospel recorded. We believe that: The birth of Jesus took place this way. The Bible says that:
When Jesus’ mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
It’s important to understanding and believing the story of our Lord’s conception and birth that we know a bit about betrothal in the ancient world. The betrothal was a ceremony where the bride and groom publicly committed themselves to one another as husband and wife in the presence of witnesses—generally their families.
From that moment on they were married, even though the celebration and their coming together as husband and wife under one roof would follow at a future date. The Bible says that Mary became pregnant after the betrothal but before they consummated their marriage.
Both Matthew and Luke tell us that this was a miracle. The child conceived within the womb of the Virgin was not the product of Mary and Joseph’s love for one another. The child was the not the product of Mary’s sin.
The child conceived within her was the product of God’s love for the world that moved him to send his Son and the power of the Holy Spirit who accomplished that gift of love within a Virgin’s womb.
Nothing more is said—no other details are given-- except that this child who began his life with the division of cells just as we begin our lives—was there within Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, what else can be said about the greatest miracle of all: that God took on flesh and entered into human history.
People in the ancient world were absolutely no different than we are—they were just as smart—just as wise in the ways of the world. They knew how babies were made: that it takes a husband and a wife and the love they share to create a child. That is why Joseph reacted as he did. The Bible says that: Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put Mary to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
We can imagine what must have been going on in Joseph’s mind: “I know that I have not been together with her and so she must have sinned”. Joseph was no fool. He knew how babies were made and in his mind there was only one possibility. And so he resolved to divorce Mary.
The Bible says that Joseph was a just man. Other translations say that he was a righteous man. What does that mean? It means that he was a devout believer in one true God and his life reflected that faith in every way. He could not-and would not-- abide with sin or give it a place in his life or look the other way. Not even when it cost him so dearly as his own wife.
His faith and personal holiness were such that it drew the attention of the Gospel writers and he would certainly stand out today. We live in a time in the church when our confession of faith is often times very different than our life of faith. People have learned to mouth the right words but the life that is supposed to be a reflection of that faith is not there.
Joseph shows us what a true and living faith looks like: forgiven of sin, he resolved to have nothing to do with sin even in the smallest way—even at the greatest cost.
There is something else remarkable about Joseph’s faith. He would not even let sin get close to him- but he dealt gently with Mary when he believed that she had fallen into sin. He did not want to shame her or ruin her. A deep personal faith and a life of holiness did not translate into him being holier than thou or self-righteous—it made him compassionate to sinners.
In Joseph’s faith and life—in his holiness and compassion--we see God’s wisdom in entrusting his Son to Joseph’s care—for it was indeed God’s Son, the Savior of the world who would be born of Mary. The Bible says that:
As Joseph considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
There was no sin in our Lord’s conception and so there was no shame for Joseph in taking Mary to his home as wife. The Savior had not come into the world as the result of sin but to save the people from their sins. That was his mission.
It is important that we know and believe the story of our Lord’s conception and birth that we learn from the Bible. But the beginning of that story is told so that we can know the end of the story: that the child who is born of Mary is the Savior of the world. He entered into the world for us and for our salvation.
He was born a perfect, innocent child so that he could be the perfect, once for all sacrifice on the cross by offering his life in place of our own under God’s wrath.
It is a beautiful story that we hear at Christmas and it is a lovely scene that is set before our eyes of faith in the story of his birth--but that story and that picture ultimately leads to a rough cross outside of Jerusalem and a crown of thorns and a soldier’s spear. It’s not an accident that it ends that way. It was God’s plan from the beginning to save the world through his Son.
It was the Father’s Son who was born of Mary and he had the right to name him. Joseph would speak the name “Jesus” but the name itself was given by the heavenly Father to the Son he loved because it perfectly captured what he came to do and that is to save us from our sins just as he had promised. The Bible says:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
The real miracle of our Lord’s conception and birth was not just that it was accomplished without the aid of a human father—not just that the baby was born to die. The real miracle is who it was conceived within the womb of the Virgin: that he was God.
That is what Immanuel means: God is with us. God took upon himself our flesh. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity—the Word who was from the beginning and is God—entered into this world as a bit of flesh, redeeming every moment of our life by his own holy life.
Matthew 1:18-25 From the very beginning of the story then we know who Mary’s child really is: God in human flesh come to save us from our sins. And the Good News for us is that he is still Jesus, our Immanuel: the Savior who is with us. The power of his saving work continues down to this moment as he speaks to us in his word and makes himself present in the sacrament so that we might receive the blessings of his death and resurrection.
He is the God who is with us—with us through our joys and sorrows—with us as we pass through this life—with us as we die--with us forever into eternity. Jesus is our Immanuel and like Joseph that calls for our obedience and faith. The Bible says that:
When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
What we see in Joseph’s life is exactly the response that God is hoping for from all of us: faith in his Word and obedience to his commands. There was a cost in this for Joseph as there always is for believers. Ugly rumors would surround his marriage and family. Joseph would forgo that part of marriage that was rightfully his so that there could be no doubt that Jesus was God’s Son. His faith moved him to service and sacrifice. May God grant us the same faith—the same obedience, and the same willingness to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Amen.